Opinion: Britain has a new PM, for whom no one voted in Britain

Publisher’s note: Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University. She is the author of “Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labor Party” and “Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist.” The opinions expressed here are solely theirs. Read more opinions on CNN.


Britain’s Conservative Party, which has resisted the resignation of two prime ministers since December 2019, cannot remain in government for another two years without calling a general election.

Well, technically, they could. But that doesn’t mean they should.

Under British law, as long as a party can hold a parliamentary majority, it can remain in power for up to five years before elections are called.

And the Conservative Party, despite suffering a string of recent partial defeats, still holds a working parliamentary majority of 71, meaning Britain’s next general election could possibly go as late as January 2025.

On Monday, Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson’s former finance minister, won the race to become the next leader of the Conservative Party and will become Britain’s prime minister. Johnson himself had seriously considered challenging Sunak to reinstate him as prime minister, before announcing on Sunday night that he would not enter the leadership race.

Since the announcement of Liz Truss’s resignation on Thursday, Conservative MPs have been citing the letter of the law to defend the party’s apparent determination to stay in power, despite the insistence of opposition parties and even some Tories that a general election is now a moral. if not legal, imperative.

But as any three-year-old knows, there are two meanings of “You can’t do that!” On the one hand, there’s “You can’t do that because it’s actually impossible.” There’s also, “You can’t do that because it’s inconceivable.” When one of my kids hits the other over the head and I yell, “You can’t do that!” both boys understand my meaning.

Changing leaders twice in the course of a parliamentary term without consulting the British electorate is the political equivalent of beating up your brother just because he annoyed you. You just can’t do it and hope you get away with it. This is especially true when, as in the current political moment, there have been drastic changes in party politics since the previous general election.

Britain faces inflation, rising borrowing costs and large-scale projected deficits that are likely to require significant tax increases, spending cuts or both.

Political decisions made in the coming months will have implications for years to come. There is a political imperative for the British to have a say in how their leaders should address the current crisis. By ignoring that imperative, the Tory party would risk further eroding faith in Britain’s democratic process, at a time when democracy is under significant threat around the world.

In the current situation, it is untenable to argue that the mandate that the public gave to Boris Johnson and the conservative electoral program of 2019 still stands. This is true even though Sunak, the new party leader, served in the Johnson administration.

It would have to be true even if Johnson had returned as prime minister, an incredible political reincarnation that Johnson seriously considered attempting before announcing on Sunday that he would not run for leadership despite the “very good chance he will succeed in the election.” . with members of the Conservative Party.

Even before Truss announced her resignation, Britain’s opposition parties have been calling a general election in the wake of her disastrous “mini-budget”, the series of policy changes that followed and her decision to sack her newly appointed Foreign Minister Kwasi Kwarteng. .

Following Truss’ resignation announcement, Labor leader Keir Starmer reiterated those calls, stressing that the British people had a right to a say on the question of who should lead the country.

“The Tories cannot respond to their latest mayhem once again by simply snapping their fingers and shuffling people to the top without the consent of the British people. They have no mandate to subject the country to yet another experiment; Britain is not their personal fiefdom to function as they wish,” Starmer said.

Likewise, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, claimed that there is now a “democratic imperative” to hold a general election, and Liberal Party leader Ed Davey insisted that the Conservatives had a “patriotic duty” to “give the people say” about the future direction of the country.

Not surprisingly, Britain’s opposition parties are clamoring for elections. The latest opinion polls show Labor leading the Conservatives by more than 30 points, the party’s biggest poll lead in history. If an election were to be called in the coming months, Labor would almost certainly win a comfortable majority.

But the conviction that “the British public deserves a proper say in the future of the country” extends beyond the ranks of the opposition. A YouGov poll taken on Thursday found nearly two-thirds of Britons believed Truss’s replacement should call an early general election.

In asserting the imperative of early general elections after two leadership changes, the opposition parties have history on their side. British political parties have frequently made a single change of prime minister without calling a snap election.

Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair in June 2007 and did not hold an election for nearly three years. John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher in November 1990 and did not call an election for another year and a half. Like Brown, Jim Callaghan, who succeeded Harold Wilson, lasted nearly three years without an election.

But in each of these cases, the men who took over had been long-serving, high-ranking members of their predecessors’ administrations, and (with the exception of Major’s abandonment of the unpopular poll tax) continued largely with the policy program on which they are based. his predecessor had been elected.

In that sense, his ascension to the post of prime minister was more akin to the elevation of a vice president after the death of a president in the United States: a significant change in government, but accepted to be within the bounds of legitimacy. democratic.

In contrast, the only prime minister in the modern era who governed without seeking a new electoral mandate after two changes in leadership was Winston Churchill, whose wartime coalition government enjoyed the united support of all parties in the House of Representatives. the Commons and the clear support of the House of Commons. British public.

Before Churchill, we must look back to 1828, when the Duke of Wellington succeeded Viscount Goderich, who in turn had succeeded George Canning (who died in office after 119 days and held the title of Prime Minister for less time). in office for nearly two hundred years, until Liz Truss came along.)

Tory Wellington remained in office for a year and a half without calling a general election. But Britain in 1828 was not a true democracy. Fewer than 10% of adult men could vote, and several deputies represented “rotten districts” that were effectively controlled by a handful of wealthy families. The notion of democratic accountability simply did not exist in the form that it exists now.

Today, in the 21st century, with universal adult suffrage, Starmer is right that the Tories cannot treat Britain as their personal fiefdom. After everything that has happened since Johnson’s resignation in July, they must seek a new term to stay in power.

After all the chaos and dysfunction, the British deserve a say in who runs the country.

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